Monday, May 18, 2015

Writing Diverse Cultures

This is Part III of a three part (I think) series on diversity that occurred by happenstance. 

In Part I, I addressed Diversity vs. Exclusion


Today, I want to talk about whether we should write cultures and experiences that are not our own?

I have mixed feelings on this. I suppose it depends upon the way in which it is handled. My knee-jerk reaction was to say no, but then I thought about the books of Tony Hillerman. I enjoyed reading books about Native Americans as a teen. It was the only window I had into a world that was a distant element of my heritage. I discovered Hillerman long before I discovered Sherman Alexie. In turn, I discovered Alexie long before I discovered Stephen Graham Jones. Yet Hillerman led me to seek out Alexie. I realized there were books I could read about Natives, that there was something different out there, even though I'd been perfectly happy reading books full of the usual non-Native characters.





It took a white man writing about the Navajo people to open up a different world to me. But once I discovered it, I expanded my horizons. I was able to seek out Native authors and discover new voices, new ways to experience the world.

From what I know of Hillerman, he treated his characters and their culture with honesty and respect. Biographies and interviews I read said that he did tons of research, as well as having Navajo friends read the stories to give him feedback and insure what he wrote was accurate. There was even a story about him having an English class on the reservation discuss whether one of his stories would work. They said no, so he didn't write it. However, I can't say whether there were people that were bothered by his books, and whether everyone felt he was doing a good thing. I've seen the argument that "There are Natives who aren't offended by the Redskins" means it's okay. (And, no, I have no interest in discussing that topic on here.) My point is, because these thirty people say it's accurate and non-offensive, it doesn't mean those other thirty people aren't hurt by the depictions they see. There's no way for me to know that.

Here's the thing. Characters are people. People are characters. He wrote people. He researched the culture, religion, and life of the Navajo and wrapped that around and into the people he created.

He also brought attention to the fact that Natives are people like you and me. They have the same kinds of problems. They aren't running around with feathers in their hair, saying, "How." They aren't savages or simpletons. They're just people, with everything that entails. Books like Hillerman's, Alexie's, Jones', and Margaret Coel's (white author of a series set on the Wind River reservation) remind us that there are as many different lifestyles and characters among Natives as there are among any other race.

If he'd done it differently, though, if he'd treated it with less respect and hadn't tried to get it as accurate as possible, I'd be singing a different tune, yes?

This is a subject I personally struggle with. I may have Native blood, but I haven't lived in that culture. I've never lived on a reservation. I have family on various reservations, some that I've visited, but none of them are a large part of my life. I don't know the languages and I wasn't brought up in those cultures. So do I have a right to write Native characters? Is there a blood quantum that has to be met? And what if someone has less Native blood than me, but has grown up on a reservation? Who gets to dictate who's qualified and who isn't?

Authors are sometimes told to write what they know, but if we followed that to the letter, fantasy wouldn't exist. No form of speculative fiction would exist. And how interesting would that be? Our job is to extract those things we know and fill in the blanks that surround them. We take those seeds and lovingly grow them into larger stories. In short, we make stuff up. So how does diversity play into that?

I agree with folks who responded to the last post saying you write the characters as they come to you, and you don't write diverse characters just to do so. The stories lead me; the characters are who they were born to be. I think it would be dishonest for me to do it any other way.

Thanks for the great comments you guys have left in this discussion! I still need to catch up from last week, but I've read the comments, and just haven't had the chance to respond. You'll hear from me soon. I've enjoyed the conversation, and the fact that it has stayed positive and thoughtful, despite what could be touchy subject matter (I didn't sleep the night I wrote the first post, and checked my comments in a panic the next morning.)

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it okay to write a different culture? If so, are there limits or rules that you think apply? What would those be? If the answer is "it depends," what does it depend on? Have you written a different race, culture, lifestyle, nationality, etc.? Would you?

May you find your Muse.

*Community by OCAL, clker.com


20 comments:

  1. Writing about the unknown takes time to research. If a writer wishes to go there then it will take time. So they would need to count the cost of how much time they're willing to devote.

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    1. That's true. There are a lot of small cultural differences (and, of course, some not so small) between groups of people that can easily be missed if someone hasn't done their research. And sometimes it can be offensive is something is wrongly portrayed.

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  2. I have some of the same concerns as you. I love to create diverse characters, but I want to be sure to steer clear of stereotypes based on my "white brain." And that's a challenge because so much of who and what I am and believe about other cultures is hidden from me. I've considered this question many times. Glad you posted about it today.

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    1. Well said. I think we all stereotype others in a way, and that's true whether they're the same race or gender. Everyone is different. It's hard to see through our own filters.

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  3. Someone has to do it or all we have are stories about white, rich people (I include middle class in that, especially as they relate to the rest of the world). At some point, you have to go beyond. It's just as important for the author as it is for the reader.

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    1. Very true. A bunch of books about rich white folks would get incredibly dull.

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  4. If the author does his research and treats it with respect, I think it's all right.

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  5. You have a lot of good points and I'm entirely on board with it, though I go back and forth on how respectfully to depict cultures. There's trouble in depicting what's problematic about them and balancing that with what's problematic in ours, or in depicting how they are disrespected without directly disrespecting them. It's worrisome for me because I hate hurting people with my fiction, particularly those that hurt too often already. I still explore, though.

    The more I learn about history, the stranger it is to me to see any story set in homogenous settings. They exist; there's a lot of Japan like that, and there are Christian communities in the U.S. that are quite sheltered, as are gated wealthy communities. But even ghettos have varieties of religions and ethnicities mingled in them. The England of Chaucer had African, Arab, and Russian citizens. As a Fantasy writer, it feels increasingly odd to find so many stories set in virtual homogeneity, with just one baffling outsider of a different skin tone or magic set. The local Wal-Mart is more diverse than most of the Sword & Sorcery books it sells.

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    1. I think exploration is important in fiction (and probably in non-fiction, too). I've been in some of those sheltered areas where all one group lived there (I remember a few rather segregated areas in D.C. when I was a kid, for instance), but those are usually pockets in the middle of diverse areas.

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  6. In my latest post I praised the Mercy Thompson series and was taken to task that Patricia Briggs was not Native American. My mother was half-Lakota so I try to be respectful when I write of Lakota and Apache as I often do ... but I was not raised on the reservation ... being of mixed heritage I was an outcast no matter where I went ... so I am not surprised that I would be shunned in my fiction.

    Are any science fiction writers androids or Martians or dimensional visitors. Are any historical authors native to the 17th or 18th century? I wrote two novels from a female teen's perspective: one a fae, the other a Victorian ghoul: I am not a girl obviously (though I taught teen girls). I am not fae nor a ghoul.

    Like John writes: the real world is diverse; any culture contains diverse elements -- to be truthful in our fiction, our stories should reflect that.

    Interesting post. :-)

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    1. I love the Mercy Thompson series, whether the author is Native American or not. Now, I'd love to see more Native authors, but I do appreciate a respectful treatment showing characters of Native heritage. I've been seeking out Native filmmakers, as well. There are more emerging all the time.

      Didn't I mention I was part Martian? ;)

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  7. Although the stories aren't done, I've written about the Native American (Hopi) and Chinese cultures. I did a ton of research of them and will still do more when I work on them again. Getting it right is important. I don't think any author should be restricted by their culture or race.

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    1. I think that's the right approach. Both of those cultures are so rich.

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  8. Writing is just writing. As long as you feel you've researched it and represented it well and feel good about it, who cares if 30 people get offended? If you write to not offend anyone, you may as well not write. And there is no such thing as having the "right" to write about a certain topic. All topics are free and open!

    If a white author gets you into Native American literature and then moves you in on actual Native American authors, well... I'd say they did a good thing. I think since the majority of writing are not minorities, it's good if they write about diverse characters and culture - because it sparks an interest in the subject.

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    1. I agree. It's good to bring interest to different groups. It may also be the thing that inspires someone from a different culture to write a book.

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  9. I think people can write about other cultures with enough research and at least some time spent immersed in the culture. It's a tricky thing to not insult other cultures with sloppy research.

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    1. Sloppy research is a big risk. Immersion would be a definite plus, though I don't know that it is always possible. It would certainly be a better way to learn the actual culture, not just what has been published about it.

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  10. Similar to you being part Native American but not knowing a lot of the culture, I have Mexican blood, but I haven't lived in that culture. Just by having the blood, I don't think it gives me any special privilege to write about a Mexican family over someone who doesn't have that blood. Besides, if you just write about someone like they're a real person, it shouldn't matter. As I mentioned before, one of our main characters was black. He wasn't some walking stereotype in Air Jordans and saggy pants going yo yo yo what's good dawg? He was just a regular person.

    As writers, if we don't know about something, we research it. We don't just pull it out of our asses and hope for the best. Even for a comedy novel, we've consulted with a lawyer to help write out a courtroom scene and make sure the charges, the proceedings, and even the verdict seemed plausible. For our zombie novel, we researched the impact of weapons on the human body to make sure it was within the realm of possibility (like, an axe to the head won't just decapitate you instantly. Not unless you're Thor). I've even researched medical technology and the effects of particular drugs on the human body for the sci-fi novel I'm working on. So I ask, how is any of that different from writing about a particular culture? If you properly research it, pass the results off to someone who knows the subject well, and verify it sounds right, then I don't see a problem.

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    1. Agreed. I recently did research on damage from having an object thrust through the body, how long the medical stay would be, in what part of the hospital (how long in ICU, for instance), what they'd have to do. Found some interesting side research from looking through all that. Man, what the human body can take.

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